Foreman’s Historical Perspectives: 20th Century Pedagogy – Part I

At no time in history has the diversity of ways in which vocal sound can be manipulated been more apparent. Nor has there ever been less agreement on how to achieve those diverse sounds, or what constitutes “good singing.”1 On the other hand, contemporary teachers proceed to disagree with much less public acrimony than in the 19th century—for the most part.

The primary consideration for teachers and singers alike is no longer only an “operatic” sound. In the 19th century, opera was the biggest game in town, and a singer trained for opera was expected to be able to scale down his voice for recital work. Let us remember that Tosi in 1723 said there were three styles, opera, chamber and church. He did not say there were three vocal emissions. Today there are dozens of kinds of vocal emissions in use, if we count—as I think we must—the exotic and ethnic styles which have been increasingly imported, and the varieties of “popular” singing, of which I count four:

  1. Ballad-crooning, which was the first of the new “popular styles” to make its appearance after the microphone was invented;
  2. Broadway singing, which inverts the usual order and ordinarily asks the female to sing in a chest voice known as a “belt,” and the male to sing in a heady near-falsetto;
  3. Rock and roll, a high-volume, often high-pitched style akin to shouting;
  4. “Folk,” in which I include traditional folksinging, Country Western, and contemporary folk styles.

To the “classical” voice teacher, the popular styles are anathema.

Here is a strong statement from Cornelius L. Reid:2

A correct technique of singing is a physiological fact, and the function of the vocal organs is governed by immutable laws. To succeed in formulating workable principles relating to that function, a proper foundation must be laid by asking and attempting to answer two fundamental questions. First, What is ‘voice,’ and what is the functional nature of the mechanism training methods are attempting to bring under discipline? Second, Why is it necessary to train the singing voice at all if its organic function is truly rooted in the natural?

In another book, Reid offers this definition of belting:3

“Belting: the practice adopted by “pop” singers (particularly women) of driving the chest register too high in the tonal range.

Belting is not a legitimate use of the mechanism and is extremely detrimental to vocal health. “Belters” frequently develop nodules on the vocal folds that require either long periods of rest or surgery for their removal.”

Taken together, these two statements seem to me to display a prejudice which excludes the possibility that good voice teachers will undertake to understand the necessary techniques which are in actual use, and learn to teach them sensibly and safely. Teachers who ignore this very large segment of the music industry, or whose critical attitudes encourage other teachers to abandon the aspiring popular singer, do themselves and the profession a disservice.

The very idea that there is one physiologically correct way to use the voice is immediately disproved when we begin to listen to the wide variety of ethnic vocal emissions available on CD. The longevity of Chinese opera singers—falsettists who often sing to an advanced age—belies this dictum, as do the varieties of polytonal singing coming out of Tibet, the Tuvan throat singers, and any number of vocal emissions which do no apparent damage to the physical organs of sound.

It is also apparent that Reid, distinguished teacher that he is, suffers from the same Western “classical” bias which limits the thinking of most voice teachers. I think we have already grappled sufficiently with the problem of a “natural” basis for vocal emission that I need not reiterate what kind of mare’s nest.4

But I think we have to infer that voice teachers teach what they have learned works most satisfactorily in their own singing, and that this is largely viva voce information, acquired by a combination of studying voice one-on-one, and listening to singers.5 A good deal may also be acquired through experimentation with students until one finds a systematic approach which works. This approach is generally termed “the empirical method,” and is looked down on by those who approach voice from the “scientific” standpoint.

It is also true that teachers need to come to grips with the question of “right” singing and “wrong” singing, and divorce the process from the application. Teachers at the end of the 20th century still display a lack of sympathy for the student who wants to sing popular music.6

There is a physical function which is efficient, well-coordinated and reasonably healthy, which can provide a fundamentally sound vocal technique for the popular singer in each of the four categories above. It is predicated not on “beautiful sound” in the old-fashioned operatic style,7 but represents a way of using the voice with fewer interferences and inhibitions, and thus a longer potential lifespan.

Increasingly, teachers and singers are coming to realize the very healthy fact that there is a significant difference between the act of vocal emission and the way in which that emission is put to the use of music.

Foreman, Edward. Authentic Singing: The history of singing. Vol. 10. Pro Musica Press, 2001.

NOTES

  1. There is no discussion here of the popular “How to Sing” books which appear every once in a while, to teach popular singers how to get by. They are, in general, a collection of maxims, familiar exercises, and personal anecdote which have little value.
  2. Reid, Cornelius L.: The Free Voice. NY, 1965, p. 13.
  3. Reid, Cornelius L.: A Dictionary of Vocal Terminology, An Analysis. NY, 1983, p. 32.
  4. The only book on voice which I consider indispensable is a small work extracted from the large corpus of writings by Sufi Inayat Khan: Music. New Delhi, 1973. It gives a spiritual dimension to the whole of music, especially voice, which is missing from the majority of western writings, and can liberate the careful reader from many limitations about his own sound and its application to singing.
  5. Unfortunately, this has led many fine singers to teach badly at the end of their performing careers, because they teach the distortions and compromises which have enabled them to survive when good vocal emission was absent, or failed.
  6. This is a generalization; I know it’s a generalization, and I know that there are many fine teachers out there who encourage their students to acquire a good functional use of the voice for whatever career they may aspire to. To them I apologize. But I have met far too many of my fellow teachers who still consider popular singing beneath contempt, and who therefore deprive potential students of the right to a sound foundation. This is nothing more than an ostrich-like attempt to ignore the statistics which demonstrate that the “high culture” of opera is gradually being overtaken by a very real, definable “popular” culture.
  7. Which has pretty much disappeared anyway into a welter of mellow tone production which is boring in the extreme.

The Sacredness of the Singer’s Spirit

When a student leaves a lesson, how do they feel? Discouraged, shamed, uplifted, excited, or relieved?

Students that come into a lesson afraid of a teacher, or the experience of the lesson, will only too readily clamp down on their throats in a fight or flight response. We want to feel safe. Our reptilian brain wants to guarantee our survival.

The control of the mood of the session is the teacher’s responsibility. We should focus on what is improving, noting where freedom is apparent, where ease is more readily achieved, and how the student can continue to improve their work. All along the way success should be noted and celebrated.

Jeannette LoVetri, the founder of Somatic Voicework™ terms this teaching attitude Pianoside Manner. This is a fitting description of how we should interact from the bench. Who wants to spend time with a cranky, opinionated, cynical, jaded teacher with soul necrosis? Would you even want to break bread with a personality like this? I call these teachers TOXIC, because that is exactly the effect they have on their students. No joy, all fear. Yuck.

There are horror stories of abusive voice teachers, ones that would send students home for wearing the wrong kinds of shoes, ones that verbally abused students, ones that would crush a student’s spirit when something couldn’t be achieved in the lesson, ones that would say things like, “NOW you’re making a professional sound!” – as if everything that came before was worthless!!

I worked with a student recently who took an exploratory lesson with another teacher. This teacher made him sing very loudly and forcefully. The experience for the student was physically and psychologically uncomfortable. He later remarked to me, “I felt like I was screaming.” Shortly after this lesson, the student became despondent, depressed, and wasn’t sure if he wanted to continue to sing. That this would happen is reprehensible.

I myself have taken lessons with VERY well known teachers, only to come out of these feeling like I’d been hit by a truck physically, psychologically, and spiritually.

How shameful there are those that place their pedagogy or aesthetic bias before their student’s current ability. How inhumane that the teacher must validate a particular ‘methodology’ and shoehorn a square peg into a round hole. If a student can’t sing particularly loudly, then the teacher should understand why: is it functional, anatomical, or temperamental? Pushing a voice to sound louder for the sake of it, without a rational basis for doing so, borders on abuse.

As teachers we must take students from WHERE THEY ARE. What is working well? What needs improvement? Where is there flow? Where is there inhibition? So many teachers are trying to get “the SOUND™” as the product they leave behind the spirit, soul, and heart of the singer in front of them. This is bad pedagogy, friends. 

You can know all you want about tuning formants to harmonics, have a connection to some past vocal guru, know the action of the laryngeal musculature, or memorize the intricacies of the Berton Coffin Vowel Chart – but if you are not an encourager, a guide, a listener, and a mentor – then you need to ask yourself why you teach.

Do you do it to ‘show off’ your knowledge and experience?

Do you do it to prove something to others?

Do you do it to validate some technique that your mom, teacher, friend, or mentor taught you?

Students come to us for our expertise, but they also come because of who we ARE as human beings. When I first started out teaching, I felt terrible about the fact that I was working with students in rather spartan locations, until a friend reminded me, “They don’t care about that, they are coming because of WHO YOU ARE.”

Worth a thought.

Pedagogies that create fear in a student, or teachers who have not done work on themselves and their inner motivations are not serving the needs of anyone. The scars from poor Pianoside Manner can last for DECADES. I’ve seen it firsthand, and it is devastatingly sad.

It’s time that we realize that EVERY LESSON SHOULD CONTAIN SOME KIND OF SUCCESS. There should never be a circumstance where a student walks out of a lesson dispirited, hurt, or depressed about their work. There is always something to celebrate in EVERY session. And if you can’t get a singer to some (even small) success in a lesson, then perhaps you need to evaluate your own teaching effectiveness.

Our students are owed that, at least.

 

 

Using SMART Goals In the Voice Studio

When I begin to work with a new student or a returning student, one of the first questions I ask is:

What are your goals?

Often I will be met by a blank stare or a frank “I dunno.”

Depending on the student, they may NOT know what their goals should be. And that’s okay! That’s where we as teachers can help and guide.

Walking them through a simple process of goal setting can make voice work rewarding for the teacher AND the student – who have something to work for collectively.

One of the best ways I’ve found to make effective goals is to use SMART goals. SMART goals are an acronym for the following:

  • S – Specific. A goal should be specific. “I want to sing better” isn’t exactly an effective goal. “I want to sing like Rihanna” is more specific, but it may not be realistic. How will you know you are singing better? What parameters will you use to determine your success? A specific goal would be “I want to strengthen my chest voice/head/mix voice,” or “I’d like to develop my sight singing skills,” or “I’d like to learn more about which styles work for my voice.”
  • M – Measurable. How will you measure the goal as you are progressing toward it? What parameters will you use to measure that your goal is on track? In the case of a singer that wants to work on their chest voice, success can be measured by the increasing strength of the register, evidenced through vocal cord closure (without SQUEEZE!), greater breath control, and increasing range of the register. The same is true for the head voice, which when properly developed should increase in range without distortion.
  • A – Attainable. Goals that are attainable are a pleasure to achieve. No one wants to have goals that are too difficult lest the student and teacher become frustrated. Sometimes simpler is better! For example, learning an easy song and delivering it well will go a long way to set the stage for learning advanced repertoire, and a foundation of ease and joy will have been laid for the student. The question of attainability is vital to keep learning on a measured, and progressive route. Giving a high schooler a Verdi aria (it’s been done!) might be attainable, but it may not be effective if bad habits are accrued in the attempt to “GO BIG” and demonstrate achievement through a hollow “Look what I can do!” mentality.
  • R – Relevant. Goals that are relevant support good vocal use and musicianship. By keeping goals relevant you are able to direct training more appropriately. For example, the singer that wants to sing musical theater AND pop music would need to set a relevant goal of achieving a strong chest voice. This goal would not only help serve their musical goals, but would also support a functionally healthy use of the instrument. Goals should always be examined for their relevance to the student’s vocal and artistic needs.
  • T – Time Bound. No one wants to spend hours on something with no end in sight. Students should have goals that can be captured in the FIRST lesson!  The teacher should help the student set monthly goals, semester goals, and yearly goals. For example, “In six months I will be singing with a strong, clear chest voice on [o] and [a] vowels.” Additionally, this timeliness goes a long way for PARENTS, who are paying for lessons and want to see their investment paying off. When parents understand timely goals, they can help support the practice and encouragement of the student when the teacher is not present.

At the beginning of each lesson, I will ask, “What are your goals for this session?” This way I am focused on their needs. In conjunction, I keep notes on every lesson, much like a physician, so that I can capture goals and monitor them over time. That way, when a student feels frustrated for some reason I can reach back and grab past goals to show them how far they’ve come.

I would recommend that the teacher consistently and continually reset goals according to these parameters. In some businesses goal-setting is part of a yearly performance review. Hopefully, students don’t have to wait a year before goals are reassessed and evaluated.

Goals help bring JOY to the studio because there is something to work toward, rather than aimless meandering about, or chasing irrelevant areas that may not be in the student’s best interest. Balancing goals can keep teacher and student on track and makes the work of learning to sing a celebratory event in every session.

Remember, every lesson should have at least ONE goal – the student should NEVER walk out of a lesson feeling that they didn’t accomplish something positive in the session. There is nothing worse a teacher can do than to send a student out with feelings of negativity and low self-esteem.

SMART goals can be the tool that get the results every student and teacher want.

What’s your SMART GOAL for today’s session?

-Keep singing!

Good Horse, Bad Horse

In his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Zen master Shunryu Suzuki approaches the question of fast and slow learners in terms of horses. “In our scriptures, it is said that there are four kinds of horses: excellent ones, good ones, poor ones, and bad ones. The best horse will run slow and fast, right and left, at the driver’s will, before it sees the shadow of the whip; the second best will run as well as the first one, just before the whip reaches its skin; the third one will run when it feels pain on its body; the fourth will run after the pain penetrates to the marrow of its bones. You can imagine how difficult it is for the fourth one to learn to run.

“When we hear this story, almost all of us want to be the best horse. If it is impossible to be the best one, we want to be the second best.” But this is a mistake, Master Suzuki says. When you learn too easily, you’re tempted not to work hard, not to penetrate to the marrow of a practice.

“If you study calligraphy, you will find that those who are not so clever usually become the best calligraphers. Those who are very clever with their hands often encounter great difficulty after they have reached a certain stage. This is also true in art, and in life.” The best horse, according to Suzuki, may be the worst horse. And the worst horse can be the best, for if it perseveres, it will have learned whatever it is practicing all the way to the marrow of its bones.

Suzuki’s parable of the four horses has haunted me ever since I first heard it. For one this, it poses a clear challenge for the person with exceptional talent: to achieve his or her full potential, this person will have to work just as diligently as those with less innate ability. The parable has made me realize that if I’m the first or second horse as an instructor of fast learners, I’m the third or fourth horse as an instructor of slow learners. But there is hope. If I persevere and dedicate my efforts to bringing along every Brewster and Edmundson who shows up at our aikido school, I’ll someday know this aspect of instructing all the way to the marrow of my bones.

So when you look for your instructor, in whatever skill or art, spend a moment celebrating it when you discover one who pursues maximum performance. But also make sure that he or she is paying exquisite attention to the slowest student on the mat.

 

Leonard, George. “Mastery. The Keys To Success And Long Term Fulfillment.” (1992).

Quote of the Day

I used to have teachers who tried to teach me by example, and what they would do is say, “No, no, do it like this”; and I would think, Well that is different from what I am doing, but I can think of a hundred ways it is different. I wonder which one they are talking about. I would try something and the teacher would say, “No, no, do it like this,” so I would try it again, change it, do something else, and that wouldn’t be what was wanted either, and I would go home very upset. I never could figure out which aspect of what they had done was what they meant. It was the most frustrating experience I have ever had. Also, I don’t like the idea of one person’s performance being the supreme influence on a young person. I don’t think it is healthy. I think they need a tremendous diet of listening to many, many different people so that the intake is spread out over many styles.

Dorothy DeLay (1917-2002)